A Eurasianet partner post from RFE/RL
EU diplomats, expecting rocky times ahead in their immediate dealings with Russia, are considering extending an olive branch.
Moscow could be in for some bad news regarding its efforts to see changes to the EU-Kyiv trade pact that is set to go into effect in January. An extension of EU sanctions against Russia over its role in the Ukraine conflict is also likely when that issue comes up in December.
As Brussels considers ways to lessen the blow, a handful of diplomats tell RFE/RL, the idea of conducting direct talks with the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) has gained some traction.
The idea is that, by opening up avenues of discussion with the trade bloc, Brussels can keep open the possibility of future cooperation with Russia on other issues. Chief among them: combating terrorism in the wake of the Paris attacks, and battling the Islamic State group in Syria.
The prospect of Brussels dealing directly with an economic bloc that aims to rival the European Union, is considered a tool for Moscow to exert political and economic influence on its neighbors, and which has been described as an effort to recreate the Soviet Union has raised some alarms, however.
"There were always, always doubts, about this dialogue [between the EU and EEU] for many reasons, and I believe today is not the best timing, frankly speaking," Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said on November 16. "The idea of those who suggest something in order to appease; again, that is the wrong idea.
One EU diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity expressed concerns that direct talks with the EEU would send the message that the only way for Central Asian states and non-EU states in Europe to do business with Brussels would be to join the EEU.
The EEU, which currently brings more than 180 million people into a single market, was officially established in 2015 and includes Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. To this point the European Union has avoided direct dealings with the EEU, while negotiating with some of its members.
Russia was widely seen as having placed economic pressure on prospective members, including Armenia, which had been set to sign an association agreement with the EU but backed out in 2013 after pressure from Moscow. Trade with Ukraine, which Russia envisioned as an EEU member, came under threat in 2013 amid Kyiv's discussions on an association agreement with Brussels.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych walked away from the deal with the EU after Russia offered both cheaper gas and the purchase of $15 billion of Ukrainian government bonds, sparking street protests that eventually brought down Yanukovych and sparked the current conflict in Ukraine.
After Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the EU imposed economic sanctions against Moscow. Kyiv and Brussels subsequently signed their association agreement, but the trade aspects of the deal were delayed due to Moscow's concerns.
Russia joined discussions with Ukraine and the European Commission over the trade aspects, known as the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), in May 2014. The three-way talks resulted in the implementation of the trade deal being postponed until January 1, 2016.
Resistance to the idea of dealing directly with the EEU, one of Russia's pet projects, is particularly strong among eastern EU members that object to rewarding Moscow while EU sanctions remain in place against Russia.
One diplomat from an eastern EU member state told RFE/RL that the "EU showed goodwill and understanding when it invited Russia to talks about a trade deal concerning only the EU and Ukraine, but that we should not appease them even more."
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linkevicius expressed doubt that extending Russia an olive branch would bring positive results.
“Who can guarantee that that will happen?" he said. "I am always doubting when trade-offs are taking place in such a matter. We are doing nothing wrong, we are doing nothing against these countries, and are issuing no restrictions with regard to Russia. Why should we do something else in order to please?"
Nevertheless, several diplomats who spoke to RFE/RL said direct talks with the EEU could become reality in the near future, although details are still being ironed out. The European Commission would likely be the EU body that would deal with the Russian-led bloc because it deals with foreign trade.
When asked who was behind the idea, one diplomat said only that it was "the usual suspects."
Another source noted that it is possible that the idea will be pushed further during Germany's one-year chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which starts in January 2016
Several top EU politicians, including European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, have on numerous occasions stated that there won't be another postponement to the DCFTA. Three-party talks including Russia are set to resume on December 1, and will likely be the last before the EU-Ukraine trade deal is implemented.
EU diplomats familiar with the talks have told RFE/RL that they are skeptical that any deal would be reached that would allay Russian fears over the Ukrainian free trade pact
Russia's concerns about trade with Ukraine after its deal with the EU is implemented are centered on customs issues, technical barriers to trade, and food safety.
Brussels and Kyiv have expressed reluctance to alter the text of their deal despite Russian threats to impose trade embargos on Ukraine in early 2016 unless changes are made to accommodate Russian concerns
Russia banned some Ukrainian imports in 2013, and Ukrainian cheeses and confectioneries have been badly hit. Earlier this year Moscow threatened to halt all food imports from Ukraine at the beginning of 2016, a scenario that the EU estimates could cost Ukraine 1.5 billion euros ($1.6 billion) annually.
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A Eurasianet partner post from RFE/RL